My last blog was about the work of Colette, a Parisian known for her scandalous writing and lifestyle. Similarly, Sylvia Beach was renowned for her connections to Paris’s literary scene and its accompanying excess. Her English language bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, thrust the unassuming American into the same circles as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, authors famous for their hedonistic life stories as their literary contributions. In this memoir, Beach invites us to peer through her shop window and into its past.
A catalogue of anecdotes about the authors she knew, it is often the more obscure figures that come across as the most captivating; Raymonde Linossier, the young surrealist poet/law student trying to carve an independent life for herself in Paris, promptly dies a page after being introduced. Beach herself admits that Linossier was ‘one of my most interesting French friends’, and James Joyce was apparently so taken by her that he featured her in his novel, Ulysses.
Speaking of Joyce, the bulk of the book is dedicated to painting a sympathetic portrait of him. His Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man may be hailed as a literary gem, but Beach’s attempt at a Portrait of the Artist as an Interesting Human Being and Not a Completely Awful Person fails, in my opinion. Her emphasis on his generosity and intelligence is hammered home with the same relentlessness that Joyce exhibits in making everyone else’s life a misery by spending all his money and illegibly rewriting his work, impacting particularly on the either determined or deranged Beach, his publisher.
The memoir did inspire me to research its subjects, though. Joyce’s daughter, who Beach depicts as a multilingual multi-tasker (again, she only pops up occasionally), was later confined to a mental asylum, supposedly schizophrenic and/or angry at a lack of education and the fact that her own career as a dancer did not take off. Beach was actually in a relationship with Adrienne Monnier, the close friend mentioned throughout Shakespeare & Company. Monnier committed suicide a year before the book was published. Again, no mention of these human details that would have made the story more engaging, but perhaps Shakespeare & Company is just a product of the more conservative era in which it was published (1950s).
Having said that, some moments are very touching, such as when Hemingway ‘liberates’ the bookshop from the Nazis. I read the book in Paris, and I loved guessing whether the window across the road was the one Beach described Fitzgerald jumping out of after a party. It was just a pity that so much of the pleasure I derived from the memoir was thanks to guess work.